As hard as this is to believe, this summer will mark the 19th birthday of Literary Kicks. I really have no idea why I've been doing it this long. I once had a reason; I forgot it. I guess I'm still having fun, though sometimes it's hard to tell.
I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom's bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as "the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy's Complaint!", which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother's bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy's Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.
But I didn't enjoy Portnoy's Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character, and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy's Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and safe Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book's riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn't much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.
in the middle of the journey of the life we share together
i became lost in the woods, and could not find the correct path
Dante, the Divine Comedy
I am not actually lost in the woods, though I know I promised to finish the redesign and relaunch of Literary Kicks by early September, and I'm running late. The project is going well, but I'll need at least another full week before the new thing is ready to drop.
Here's the real honest truth: I'm enjoying the break from blogging. I decided to allow myself to take my time with the technical redesign, because ... well, I've been blathering on this infernal website for a whole long time. Sometimes I just want to be stop blogging for a couple of weeks.
You may find this hard to believe, but I sometimes just want to be silent. Silence is a good thing. The latter-day Beat poet Bob Kaufman once took a vow of silence for 10 years, whereas I'm pretty sure Litkicks will be back in the next two weeks.
I'm off for a month of rest and rethinking. As I've mentioned before, Litkicks is going to go through some changes before it returns in early September. The main goal of the redesign is to enable a more natural flow of content on the site, and to allow the site to do more of what works and less of what doesn't. I'm still sketching out the basic plan, but here's a slightly more detailed breakdown of the changes I have in mind:
Literary news and essays. This will remain the primary purpose of the site, though we'll be posting shorter pieces at a faster rate on the new version, along with the regular stream of longer pieces by myself and excellent contributors like Michael Norris, David Richardson, Claudia Moscovici, Alan Bisbort, Garrett Kenyon, Dan Barth, newcomer Tara Olmsted and hopefully other new voices too. The main change in this area will be a bifurcated design for content: there will be one stream of short, newsy blasts and another stream of more substantial writings. I think this will help the site a lot. As for the style and sensibility of the literary coverage, that will stay exactly the same: opinions, observations and research.
This is a story about blogger's block, and about two novels I tried to review and couldn't.
I liked one of the two novels a lot, and didn't like the other one at all. One had been sent to me by the author, the other by a friendly publicist, and I intended to blog about both of them. But when it came time to write, I found myself strangely stunted. I'm not often at a loss for words, but a weariness with contemporary fiction seemed to have stormed me like a derecho. The ensuing struggle helped lead me to a decision (Rilke: "you must change your life") that it was time for me to do something new and different with Literary Kicks.
Here's what happened: first, I read The World Without You by Joshua Henkin, a smooth professional novelist who runs the MFA program at Brooklyn College in New York City. He's a master talent who takes his craft very seriously, and he's got a lot of heart. The World Without You is a family story -- love, divorce, conflict, misunderstanding -- in the great tradition of Laurie Colwin or John Updike or Anne Tyler or Katharine Weber or Jonathan Franzen or Roxana Robinson. The novel satisfies in the same sublime way that most novels about families satisfy: it wrenches at you, surprises you, aggravates you, and totally makes you relate.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. But I found myself lacking a desire to write about it. Should I describe the characters, the taciturn Dad, the fiery Mom, the brother who died, the angry sisters who remain, the outrageous (and hilarious) former slacker turned Orthodox Jew who marries into the family? I could describe them, but Joshua Henkin already did. Should I explore the meaning of the novel? I couldn't think of a meaning, except "this is a family". (Which means plenty, if you say it right.)
Next, I read Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life, a very trendy and Zeitgeist-y metafictional thing about a self-conscious writer (named, coincidentally enough, Sheila) and her artsy/literary friends. I thought I might like this book because it's structured as an inquiry into ethical philosophy. As the title suggests, it's a novel about a writer trying to figure out the best way to live.
Changes. Funny thing ... I was planning on writing a blog post today about some changes I'm planning on making here on Litkicks. The site turns 18 years old (!) this Monday, July 23, and I'm planning to shake a few things up. I was going to write about that today, and then I heard some news about the Bowery Poetry Club.
The Bowery Poetry Club has always been my favorite night spot in New York City. It opened in the spring of 2002 -- a great time for a new spoken word poetry club to open in a New York City still recovering from the shock of the previous September. The club is the handiwork of poetry raconteur Bob Holman, a guy we like a lot and think should be Poet Laureate of the United States.
For the past eleven years the BPC has been a cozy and friendly spot for amateur and professional poets and slammers and lyricists. Everybody who worked there was a poet, and you'd find Moonshine and Shappy (two good spoken word guys) mopping the floor or tending the bar. There's a Walt Whitman Lite Brite behind the stage, tasty organic coffee and tarts out near the front ... and halfway decent poetry acts at least half the time. Whenever a friend was coming in from out of town, I'd tell them to hit the Bowery Poetry Club.
Unfortunately, it's closing down. A restaurant will probably replace the club, though there is some word that the restaurant will continue to host poetry events. Bob Holman sent out an encouraging message earlier today:
The rumors of the death of the Bowery Poetry Club are greatly exaggerated!! It is true that ten years into Project Utopia, the hamster-tail chase of booking 30-35 gigs a week to allow the Poetry we know and love to live has produced a fatigued staff, a ragged Board (of Bowery Arts + Science, the nonprofit that books the Club), and a space that's crying out for a dose TLC. But toss in the Po' Towel? No Way, Joe! By spending the summer renovating and working out a partnership with a restaurant (rumors of Duane Park as our collaborators are sweet and the two entities surely do share a love for the populist arts of the Bowery, but nothing is signed yet folks), we hope to reopen come fall and be SUSTAINABLE with a neighborhood (Loisaida/Earth) focused poetry schedule, utilizing other neighborhood resources as well as the Club. Look for a fuller deployment of the POEMobile around town, state, country, solar system, and a commitment to a global poetics rooted in the Endangered Language Movement. To the communit-y/-ies who have supported us, and to our staff, deepest thanks! Stay tuned -- we love you. Come party with Sean T and Ann and all on Tues July 17. Everything is Subject to Change! -- and for our Tenth Anniversary next year, the BPC will look different. To survive and sustain. All the better to serve the world poetry.
In other words, Holman says we don't need to worry about poetry in New York City ... and from what I know of the strong slam poetry community in New York City, we definitely don't need to worry about it. It's good news that the Bowery Poetry Club organization will continue to be active, and I'm sure they'll keep it hopping on the Lower East Side.
Last weekend's blog post "A Dollar's Worth of Morals" may turn out to be the most unpopular thing I've ever written on this site. Several typically friendly Litkicks commenters posted in no uncertain terms that they hated the piece ... including my own beloved wife.
Ironically, I didn't expect this reaction at all when I wrote the piece. I was only trying to tell an amusing story that had, I thought, a positive and good-natured moral.
Clearly, my writing skills failed me. As they say, "If three people tell you you're drunk, sit down." I now see what went wrong with this piece, and I understand why it left so many of my faithful readers cold. I'd like to explain where I went wrong, and maybe salvage some part of my original message, which completely got lost in this disaster.
The story I told is a simple one: as I was leaving work one day, a co-worker named John T. raced down the building lobby after me, causing a lot of public commotion, so he could give me back the dollar he'd borrowed earlier that day. He evidently lived in moral horror of ever forgetting a debt, and the point of my telling this story was that I found his priorities ridiculous, especially since he had recently disappointed me by failing to speak up to our boss about a workplace problem we were both concerned about.
I was trying to make a subtle and esoteric point, in a non-judgemental way, that we often put too much emphasis on petty issues involving small amounts of money or insignificant possessions, failing to emphasize instead the things that really matter in our lives. I'm very interested in the psychology of wealth and possessiveness, and I meant this piece to reflect upon the same questions I'd brought up in earlier Philosophy Weekend posts like this one or this one.
But a strange thing happened between my conception of the story and my telling of it. I thought I was writing in an amused and jokey voice, but somehow a vein of hidden anger became exposed, and the tone of my story became shrill. I began accusing John T. of following a shallow and legalistic code of ethics, and went off on a strange half-paragraph rant about how he had betrayed our friendship. This harsh stuff did not match the intended warm tone of my blog post at all, and I ended up making readers feel sorry for poor John T., who I was beating up mercilessly for the very minor crime of paying me back a dollar.
I did not find myself on Wall Street by accident; I had graduated from a state university with a computer science degree six years earlier, and had taken a series of jobs that each brought me closer to the top of my field. I wasn't particularly interested in high finance, but I was ambitious for an exciting career, and the financial industry was considered the most prestigious place for a techie to work in New York City at this time. I did not find what I hoped for there. My two year adventure at JP Morgan left me deeply disappointed on many levels, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to leave the financial software marketplace for better work elsewhere (I never looked back, except sometimes in anger).
Four months ago I announced my intention to publish one e-book a month for the next year, thus launching a new publishing branch of this long-running website. I've released three Kindle books so far, right on schedule, and I'll be presenting the newest title on Thursday. Unlike your local train line, I've still never been late.
This is hard work, but it's going pretty well so far. The first of my three books seems to keep selling, and while the other two are lagging behind, my latest chapbook of selected literary essays did get a very nice review at Dead End Follies. Still, as I proceed I can't help feeling that I'm going both too fast and too slow. I'd like to explain what I mean by this.
I suppose it's obvious that I'm going too fast, because I'm publishing one book a month. Nobody publishes one book a month! I originally pledged to maintain this fast pace because I figure if I'm going to jump into the indie publishing business with both feet, I may as well do it Kerouac-style. I don't want to waste a lot of time triple-proofreading or worrying over spreadsheets. I want this new publishing venture to go, go, go.
Since I began publishing e-books three months ago, I've discovered that the most annoying part of the process, hands down, is marketing and publicity. The most fun part? Easy: cover artwork. I love designing covers, and I love working with artists like Vince Larue and Goodloe Byron (who's working on a cover for a new book I'm particularly excited about, which is coming out in August). For my latest book Chiaroscuro: Assorted Literary Essays I went digging into my own archives, and I thought I'd share with you what I found. You see, when I was a teenager I spent a whole lot of time doing pen and pencil sketches of my favorite rock stars.